Burning in halal: Candidates fight over symbols as France grinds to halt

Christians unknowingly eating halal meat, 100 per cent taxes on the rich, Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni pretending to be a down-to-earth couple – the French election campaign has turned into a parade of faintly ridiculous controversies.

­But the problems France faces are anything but a joke.

Incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and social-democrat rival Francois Hollande are neck and neck ahead of the first round of the vote on April 22, both polling at around 30 percent. For months already, both have been nearly guaranteed passage to the second round runoff of the election – ever since Hollande’s chief rival Dominique Strauss-Kahn dropped out of the race after a string of sex scandals.

Normally, by this stage candidates fight over undecided voters on central ground. Politicians are also expected to show off their statesman-like side – making it easier for the electorate to picture them as the president of a major power strutting the world stage.

­Meat obsession

Not so in this election. Take Nicolas Sarkozy’s obsession with halal meat.

It started off with a comment by radical right-winger Marine Le Pen, who said in February that Parisians were digesting mass quantities of halal meat – prepared in accordance with Islamic tradition, which involves slitting the animal’s throat in a prescribed manner.

At first, Sarkozy shrugged off Le Pen’s claims, dismissing the issue as trivial.

But as the story continued to gain traction in the media, the President changed his stance. He promised that all meat would be labeled to indicate how the animal was killed.

By March, halal panic was spiraling out of control. Sarkozy’s interior minister Claude Guéant claimed that if long-residing foreigners were given the vote in local elections (a Socialist party proposal) then all French citizens would soon be eating halal meat in schools and workplace canteens.

Now, Sarkozy had to step in and promise that there would indeed be no halal meat in French schools. And neither would the proud secular nature of the French Republic be tarnished by segregated swimming pools for Muslims.

In the midst of this firestorm, a statistic. The share of halal meat eaten in the ethnically-diverse greater Paris area: 2.5 percent.

There is no doubt that the halal debate is a proxy for vital immigration and integration issues that have plagued France in recent years. Also in March, an Al-Qaeda-supporting gunman killed seven people before holing up in a flat for a televised 32-hour siege that ended in his death. In fact, if Sarkozy does win another term, many will point to his proactive handling of that crisis as a key point in his re-election. At the same time, scaremongering about halal canteens is hardly the level of debate that will help find a cure for France’s schizophrenic attitude to its immigrant population.

Perhaps, the very predictability of the front-runners has done them a disservice. Knowing full well that they are unlikely to make the second round, the French public has opted to vent their frustration with mainstream politics by opting for the far-right and far-left candidates. Also aware that they will never become heads of state, these radical candidates have also become emboldened to make promises they could never keep. So instead of fighting an adult campaign, Sarkozy been reduced to playground games of anti-immigrant one-upmanship with Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie, who once referred to the Holocaust as an “historical detail.” While Le Pen herself, a feminine blonde, is far more palatable than her rabble-rousing father, her rhetoric is almost as harsh, and by stooping down to her level Sarkozy is just as likely to alienate his own voters as to nab hers.

­World-class taxes

While Le Pen is Sarkozy’s grotesque shadow, Jean-Luc Melenchon is Hollande’s.

A former Trotskyist, Melenchon has delivered firebrand speeches in the shadow of the Bastille. He has promised a 100 per cent tax on any earnings above 360 thousand euro, coupled with France’s exit from NATO. A sequence of attention-grabbing declarations lifted him to a 15 percent poll rating, vying for third place with Le Pen.

Hollande has struck back. He has promised a 75 per cent tax on any income over 1 million euro – not as radical, but still far higher than most of France’s neighbors. Confronted with high-level businessmen threatening to leave the country, he was forced to go on a campaign stop in London, asking his compatriots who have left due to high taxes to come back. It is not clear how many will take up his offer.

Even Carla Bruni – the multi-millionaire ex-supermodel living in a presidential palace – made an unwise foray into class conflict, describing herself and her husband as a “modest” family.

Meanwhile, in another shift to the left, a video has gone viral showing that Hollande is now trying to ape France’s socialist hero, President Francois Mitterand, borrowing not only his rhetoric but his trademark hand gestures.

­Turning off voters

It is hard to say whether pandering to the radicals is the best tactic for the individual candidates, but the electorate at large seems to have been turned off by the candidates. Thirty two per cent of the electorate say they have no intention of voting, and if that number stays the same on election day it will constitute the lowest turnout in the history of the French Republic. In a tightly contested race, such apathy is astonishing.

But there are some clues as to issues the electorate might actually care about. France’s unemployment is at a 12-year high. The country’s debt is so high, interest repayments are the second-biggest item of expenditure in the budget, after education. In fact, the country has not balanced its budget since 1974. GDP growth is predicted to be a paltry 0.7 percent.

These problems have been mostly skirted over during the campaign. Perhaps because – unlike on the issues of halal meat or swimming pools – here, French politicians have no easy answers.

­Igor Ogorodnev, RT